When Animation Technique is Funny

I knew nothing about the feature animated film A Town Called Panic when I first saw it in a movie theater, years ago. As soon as it began I was immediately in love with their technique. If you haven’t seen it, it is stop motion animation, but limited, like super low budget television animation. The characters are replicas of childrens toy figures, but they are not articulated. They either move in place, or use replacement animation, giving a strong pose to pose effect that I very much enjoy. Here is a sample, which also introduces the story of how Cowboy and Indian need bricks to build their friend Horse a BBQ.

This technique gives the effect of a child playing with his or her toys. The method of animation, and the story as well, have a light-hearted exuberance that does not take itself seriously. Anything can happen. I was laughing from the first minute. If the technique itself is funny, you are off to a running start, and that is always a good thing.

It is amusing how they force the figures to do things. They adapt. We are accustomed to limited animation using multiple limbs to simulate fast motion. When it’s done with rigid models, it becomes fresh again. Here is cycling gif of Horse typing.

When they are not forcing the figures to adjust to the world, they will create new props that are adapted to the figures. Such as this example where the piano has the keys on the floor so Horse can more easily reach them.

It’s amazing how they don’t let the characters natural physiology stop them from making anything happen in the story. For instance, who would have a horse climbing a vertical cliff, then answer a cel phone while doing it? Watch.

I think that scene is amazing. I only used the French version because the dubs are not nearly as fun. The phone call is from a female horse he has a crush on, so it’s emotionally important to him. She’s a music teacher, and we get a shot of her other animal students practicing jazz. The scene has danger, emotion, absurdity and clumsy comedy all in one.

While this is “limited” animation, it opens up other ways of doing things that full animation would not do. For example, suppose a story called for a character to rush through breakfast. In a classic Disney animated style, I can easily imagine a scene where Goofy runs into a kitchen jumping while putting his second shoe on. Then he slides a coat on with one hand while eating toast with the other, then switching the other arm into the coat while drinking coffee with the other arm, all the while running around the kitchen table, then flying out the door. It would be beautiful. In ATCP, we get this…

I think they make many good creative choices throughout these films. Such as occasionally using full size props, such as the coffee pot and cup in the video above. They don’t overdo the use of these human sized props in the same way the don’t fill out toys everywhere. It feels like an imaginary universe that was built around the toys.

A Town Called Panic was created by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The two are Belgian, and met in art school. They created a student film using the technique, and years later it became series of four minute animated shorts on TV. That led to the 2009 feature film I used for examples here. Since then they have also produced two half-hour specials. The specials and TV shorts were recently released on blu-ray disc, which I just watched. The duo also directed the wonderful feature Ernest and Celestine, which proves they are quite capable of beautiful traditional animation.

It is really an accomplishment to create a signature style of animation. Aubier and Patar have done what Terry Gilliam did with this Monty Python animations, or PEZ with his short animated films.

Some links for further reading.

NPR review with audio.

Filmmaker Magazine

Cineuropa interview

L.A. Times

Laurel & Hardy: How to be Stupid

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the greatest physical comedians on film. Before teaming up, they acted separately in hundreds of short films. Stan had a career in music hall working under Fred Karno along with Charlie Chaplin. Together, the two struck gold with their carefully crafted comedy of errors. They began in silent films, and when sound came along, they were one of the few acts to prosper with the new technology. They weren’t just slapstick. They could work verbal comedy, and relationship comedy with the various husband and wife scenarios they created. But mostly they are known for the trouble they got into with their half-baked thinking.

It’s important to understand that they each have a style of stupidity. Being foolish has many shades from the drooling idiot who seems to understand nothing, to the absent minded professor who is both brilliant and bumbling. When creating a stupid character, there are many directions to take. Stan Laurel’s character is primarily a simpleton. His mind doesn’t quite handle complex thought. Oliver Hardy is an aspirational fool. He wants to do things well, he can concoct plans, but he overestimates himself and his partner. Ollie is usually the motivator. In real life, Stan Laurel was the creative force in the pair, but in character it was Ollie’s job to get the ball rolling.

One of the ways Laurel and Hardy were different from other comedians was that there were fewer surprises. The audience can see the gags coming. As they are doing the stupid thing, it builds anticipation in the audience, and the gag is the payoff. Because they are stupid, Stan and Ollie do NOT see what is going to happen.

How does one start a story where your character can make themselves look stupid? In physical comedy, it’s all about getting into a difficult situation. Some of their best works were built around one simple challenge, such as deliver a piano up a huge flight of steps. While there is a lot of hard labor, they also get numerous unexpected obstacles. Of course, making them move vertically in space allows gravity (an essential component in physical comedy) to work its magic. In Berth Marks all they have to do is climb into an upper berth on a Pullman train car, change clothes, and get into bed. Squeezing 2 people into a small space allows them very close interaction. The simpler the challenge, the stupider your character looks when they struggle with it. When things get awkward, they can make it worse. In comedy, a situation can never be too awkward, it’s a just a matter of getting there in a way through a sequence of events that build on each other.

Berth Marks

Through all of their films, the most basic way they show their stupidity is they just don’t seem to learn. I would call this rule #1. With carefully arranged variations, they will make essentially the same mistake again and again. At a construction site, Stan will not learn that Ollie needs a sturdy plank to walk on. After three bricks in a row land on his head, Ollie appears to believe that must be all of them, so he doesn’t move out of the way of the fourth. They are endlessly surprised at what happens to them, while the audience knows exactly what’s coming. Watching their reactions is half the fun.

Inattention is a very useful tool in comedy. In a duo like L&H, having one of them not looking at what they are doing or where they are walking is an easy to set up a fall or blow. You know those YouTube videos of people looking at their cel phones while walking, and falling into a fountain? That’s what I’m talking about.

They were great at setting up misunderstandings. In Blockheads, Stan is at a veteran’s hospital and he finds a wheel chair to sit in for a bit. It’s arranged in such a way that to sit in it he has to fold his leg underneath himself. When Ollie shows up, he believes Stan lost his leg in the war. One thing leads to another, and Oliver ends up carrying Stan completely unaware that he has two good legs.


Miscommunication is a basic way for things to go wrong. Conversations between them are often tortured. Mostly it’s Stan’s slowness. He twist sentences and mangles common phrases. He’s not just dumb, he is artfully dumb in an entertaining way. Stan’s misunderstanding is clearly evident on his face. Oliver gets frustrated, and it’s all part of the comedy.

However, they are not always at odds with each other. Sometimes they work together quite well. The problem is, those are always the times when they are getting into trouble. They can, without words, jump into the same fight with someone else. Neither will ever hold the other back from doing something stupid.

One of their best known styles of comedy was the tit-for-tat routine. As mentioned above, the could get into battles of one-upmanship with rivals. In Big Business, they get into a scrape with James Finlayson, and through the course of the film, a house and a car are seriously damaged. They were very good at keeping the comedy ball rolling. They could trigger the chain reaction, and do whatever is necessary to not let it slow down. Where a normal person would endeavor to interrupt the failing process, they would throw gasoline on the fire.

If they break something, that is just the start of a series of gags when they try to fix it. One thing should lead to another in a semi-logical system of cause and effect. In Busy Bodies, after shaving off a strip of Ollie’s pants, Stan glues it back on. But that was just to introduce the glue which causes further humiliation and destruction. Ultimately, it leads to Stan using carpentry tools to shave off the glue brush bristles from Ollies face.

Busy Bodies

While other comedians like Keaton and Chaplin could be extremely clever, and come out of their stories having won more than they lost, Laurel & Hardy films nearly always ended with everything in a complete shambles. They had several prop model T cars built to end up either falling to pieces, crushed to half its size but still drivable, or literally sawed in half. In Helpmates, Stan comes over to help Ollie clean up his house before his wife gets back, and it ends up with the house burned up.


In my book, I discuss “redemption.” What that means is stupid characters need some redeeming qualities to make them appealing. Stan and Ollie worked together for years, and they were able to create the sense that they were committed friends. They needed each other and would stick together through thick and thin. They keep going even when things look very bad, and audiences admire that.

The Art of Not Doing Something

Here is a simple technique to make something funny from nothing.  A character has some ordinary thing to do but goes through a bunch of other actions that are anything but what he is supposed to do.  This is just one of the ways that comedic acting can be very different from dramatic acting. Dramatic actors would never do this. They must focus on doing things, and never waste time.

On the classic television show The Honeymooners, Art Carney played Ed Norton. He had a running gag where he would prepare to do some mundane activity, but go through a whole bunch of specific gestures and flourishes before actually doing it. It would go on so long that Ralph (Jackie Gleason) would lose his patience and abruptly put an end to it.  In this example, Norton prepares to write a list.

Having a second person there to get annoyed by the first one is important. When they lose their patience, the first character then chooses how to respond.  Ed Norton stops the foolishness and carries on with the writing.  In the next clip, W.C. Fields takes his sweet time getting into bed, and he gives the impression he is holding it up specifically to irritate his wife.  Her protestations have no effect, and he continues on at his own pace. This kind of “funny business” is a way to put some laughs into something that would otherwise be very simple.

Of course, he doesn’t put the light out.

Laurel and Hardy did an entire short film about them trying to go to bed in a tiny Pullman car berth. They get irritated by each other and have nothing but trouble. By the time they finally get settled, the train has arrived at their destination and they have to get out.

In his film Mon Oncle, Jacque Tati has a background character who carries a broom to sweep the streets, but he is 99% engaged in a conversation. Several times he draws back in anticipation of one stroke with the broom, but he stops and goes back to talk to his friend.

Conversely, a character can have something he or she is NOT supposed to do, and the comedy comes from the struggle to resist temptation. This next clip is from the physical comedy group Aga-Boom. These are some of my favorite modern clowns.  I posted about them in Cartoony Humans.  In this clip, there is a big red button, with a “Do Not Touch” sign on it.  You can see the psychological forces move back and forth as he goes towards it, and moves away. It is easy to see each moment where his mind changes. His button pushing finger almost has a brain of its own.


Inazma Delivery Service


If you asked me what animation director I would most like to work with, the first name that would come to mind would be Satoshi Tomioka.  He is responsible for the fantastic Usavich Rabbits that ran on MTV Japan.

So I am thrilled to find new work from Tomioka’s company, Kanaban Graphics.  Inazma Delivery Service is a series of short videos on “Space Shower TV”  The delivery service employee is a pig-like character named Hemingway, and he becomes responsible for a lost space alien, named Bytheway.  Bytheway always wears a shark costume.  If you like Usavich Rabbits, you will no doubt enjoy Inazma Delivery Service.  It has an identical format, with very short episodes stringing together a longer story.  It has a similar 8 bit video game music track.   Also, these two characters are very similar to the Usavich Rabbits, Kirenenko and Putin.  One of them is a nervous character who worries and sweats.  The other has unpredictable fits of rage.  It seems as if Tomioka likes this particular combination.  He probably finds them effective in creating situations that are both comedic and dramatic.   Artists do well when they know their signature style, and spend time exploring the possibilities.

Inazma Delivery Service introduces an improvement over Usavich, by having a somewhat emotional moment in the story.  Episode nine is a powerful 2 minutes.  Be sure to watch that far.

The show is almost 100 % visual comedy.  It is silly and bizarre and full of high energy gags.  Below, you can see the first ten episodes, which I pieced together from YouTube.


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